2012 Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

Back on September 3rd, the Tampa Bay Rays were nine games out of the wild card race. The Boston Red Sox collapsed, going 7-20 overall in the final month of the season, and the Rays took advantage. On September 28th, game 162, the Red Sox lost to the Orioles (in walk-off fashion), and the Rays beat the Yankees in extra innings, sending themselves to the postseason. The Rays have now made the playoffs in three of the past four seasons, after finishing in last in all but one year from 1998 to 2007.

Tampa Bay didn't spend a lot this offseason, but they did manage to bring in a number of useful pieces, signing Luke Scott, Carlos Pena, Jeff Keppinger, Fernando Rodney and Jose Molina. They also exercised options for James Shields and Kyle Farnsworth, and signed lefty Matt Moore to an incredible extension.

The Rays specialize in run prevention, as they have both good pitching and stellar defense. In 2011, they had a team park-adjusted defensive efficiency of 4.80, which was far and away the best in the majors. Their ability, as a team, to convert batted balls into outs is simply astounding. They don't have any incredible defenders, per se -- at least nobody like Peter Bourjos, but they're solid all around the diamond. Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist stand out as very good defenders though, and there's really just no defensive weakness in the starting lineup. The addition of Jose Molina, who will earn $1.5M in 2012 (with a club option for that same amount in 2013), will only solidify the Rays' defense. Molina has quietly been a remarkable defender behind the plate, bringing 1.5 to 2 wins of value per season despite not receiving all that much playing time.

The pitching staff clearly benefits from the great defensive support, but it's pretty good in its own right. David Price has only gotten better with age, and another season like last year's ~5 WAR is to be expected at this point. Right behind him in the rotation is James Shields, who finally emerged as a Cy Young caliber starter in 2011. Of particular interest: he completed eleven games last year, tossing nearly 250 innings overall. Jeremy Hellickson, who had a .223 batting average on balls in play last year, seemed to benefit more than anyone from that extremely talented Rays defense. Accordingly, I'm not so confident the 2.95 ERA is an accurate reflection of his talent level. That said, he should easily improve upon his mediocre peripherals (15.1% K%, 9.3% BB%) -- and don't forget, he's still only 24 (well, 25 in April). And now we get to the most intriguing arm of the bunch -- Matt Moore, who's considered by some to be the top prospect in all of baseball. I wouldn't be surprised if he ends up outperforming the rest of the staff -- which would essentially mean the Rays have three "aces." The fifth spot is up for grabs, it seems, as Tampa Bay has three viable options: Alex Cobb, Wade Davis, or Jeff Niemann could all presumably seize the job. By the way, ZiPS projects Cobb for a 3.64 FIP. And he would be the Rays' fifth starter. This is definitely one of the deeper rotations in the bigs, up there with the Rangers and the Braves.

The Rays' bullpen was actually one of its glaring weaknesses in 2011, as they were third-to-last in the majors in FIP- and xFIP-. A full year of Jake McGee will help, as will a bounceback season from J.P. Howell. Kyle Farnsworth, at age 35, just had what was arguably the best season of his career in the Rays' closer role, and that turned out to be a very nice acquisition. I am, however, a bit skeptical as to whether or not the Fernando Rodney deal will really pay off. He'll be 35 in a month, and his last markedly above-average season was six years ago.

The Rays had a solid offense last year, and I think it will be just as good -- perhaps even better -- this year. They'll get a full season of Desmond Jennings, who posted a 131 wRC+ across 287 plate appearances in 2011. Additionally, they brought in a couple very good hitters in Carlos Pena and Luke Scott: Pena is projected by ZiPS to post a .342 wOBA, while Luke Scott is at .334.

The Rays have once again put themselves in a good position to make the playoffs, despite the fact that they're up against the Red Sox and Yankees. As always, it'll be fascinating to see how the AL East plays out.

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